If you're feeling dizzy about a new middle leadership role, this blog is for you!
Before you start
You’ve just walked into a new job as a middle leader. I’ve done that more than three times now. There are already a million and one things in your in-tray. Deciding whats important and what isn't is going to be a bloody nightmare; you'll probably have a million different voices calling for a million different things. Given your obvious enthusiasm, you'll probably want to tackle them all at once. That was me in 2013. I dived head first into, well, everything. The result, a scatter gun approach to the role of HOD where everything got done but nothing got done with the kind of deep thinking behind it that would have benefited the department in the long term. I did the job of fire fighter; turning to tackle one blaze after another without ever eliminating the source of the blaze. I left the school in 2015 having done the job but not feeling as though i'd laid down the kind of meaningful roots that a clear vision and plan could have given me. I'm downright harsh on myself sometimes, which is one of my biggest strengths and weaknesses but in this case, I think theres plenty of truth in what i've just explained.
Anyway, I should have started with asking some big questions like “What do you want this department to look like, be like and feel like? Where is the department right now? Where do you want and need it to be and how will you get there? How will you know if you’ve been successful?”.
I should have formulated a simple and effective plan including a clear vision and purpose with clear and achievable objectives. I didn't. This was partly because i'd never really been trained in how to, partly because there was so many books, documents and proformas to support the process, I spent too long digging for the core elements and partly because workload dictated I simply didn't have time. At the time, i'd also gone through several big changes in my personal life which coincided with my opening stint as HOD.
So this blog is a response to all the challenges and obstacles I listed above. It should take about 5-10 minutes to read and support anyone who has literally just been appointed a middle leader in any context. It will hopefully also help anyone who feels a little bit bogged down and as though the message has got lost somewhere, to refocus. Its not perfect, I wrote it over a few days. Also, I would really love feedback from anyone and everyone. Please, please tell me whats wrong and right. Twitter has been the best thing that ever happened to me professionally so it would be wonderful to hear from my peers. I just hope its useful, in some way. So, let me kick off with where I think I should have started on day one:
Some simple yet important questions to consider before you start (or maybe before you do anything)
Who am I and what do I believe in?
Where is the department at?
Where do I want to go and how will you get there?
All these questions seem to tie together. One will probably dictate another in many cases. I came up with a list of what I want which contains not only elements of what I believe but more so what I would want for any department I managed (at this point in my career, anyway):
I want my department to be >
A place where students learn
A place where students enjoy learning
A place where students feel safe and secure to learn
A place where students follow a well thought out and streamlined curriculum model
A place where the why’s and what’s of content/knowledge is kept at the forefront of both the teachers and the student’s minds
A place where students know where they are up to but don’t feel over tested
A place where teachers feel supported and comfortable
A place where teachers can experiment freely in their teaching practice
A place where teachers are not micro managed and have as much autonomy as possible
A place where teacher workload is kept to a minimum
A place where teachers understand that there is no best way of teaching and that variety is the spice of life
A place where teachers know where their students are up to, individually and collectively, but don’t need to prove it through the production of various pieces of paper
A place where meeting times are focused on teaching and learning, not administration and paperwork
There’s probably much more than that but its a start!
Now the challenge! Transferring that into a departmental mission statement that is short, sweet and to the point. I gave it a go here:
“At the O Castro British School History Department, our mission is to ensure that all students learn History, are inspired by History and love every single History lesson. Our goal is to make to make the most of our privileged position and make sure that students remember their History lessons for life. We want to challenge all our students to think about History, on a journey through our knowledge rich and academically rigorous curriculum, whilst supporting students of all abilities to achieve their goals. We believe History is about much more than exam results. As teachers, we are serious about developing our own teaching so will experiment with innovative and cutting-edge pedagogy, testing it not only against student outcomes but the educational research available to us.”
I would love your feedback on that! I know Ewan Macintosh challenged us all to come up with a mission statement of 6 words for ourselves last week at the Leicester T and L conference- could be interesting trying to whittle the above down.
Ok, next step is to now use that mission statement to come up with a “plan of action” – how will I transform that mission statement from vision into reality?
I took certain aspects of the mission statement and tried to produce a list of "needs" emanating from the main themes:
“Our mission is to ensure that all students learn History, are inspired by History and love every single History lesson.”
Teachers across the department need to understand what good teaching is. There is, of course, a whole plethora of material on this but a great place to start is the seminal work of the Sutton Trust and their 2014 report by Rob Coe entitled “what makes great teaching?”. The report contains a research basis for what constitutes good teaching. This is a document that will be shared with staff and embedded into initial meetings and beyond.
Teachers across the department need to have access to teaching tools to support their own teaching style. Whatever teaching style a teacher adopts, they will need two key things to support their teaching – 1. An easily accessible plethora of teaching strategies which they can “dip into” where appropriate. 2. An easily accessible bank of high quality educational resources which sit well with the curriculum in place.
Teachers need to aim to have a deep subject knowledge. For students to “love learning” as much as we want them to, all teachers need to aim to have a “deep” subject knowledge. Teachers will need to have a love of History first and foremost and then a desire to learn more themselves. The development of a teacher’s subject knowledge should be at the forefront of staff development. This will take 2 forms – 1. Ensuring that time is given to teachers for academic reading and research. 2. Relevant books and documents of interest should be readily available within the department whether physically or digitally. The subject knowledge of teachers will be a priority and difficult decisions may need to be taken to ensure its place in staff development.
The department will need to look for opportunities to inspire students in History. Teachers will be encouraged to “bring History to life” in their classroom. The department will encourage – 1. The use of historical artefacts and objects in lessons 2. The interviewing and interactions, whether online or in person, of academic historians 3. The visiting of places of historic interest and importance 4. The promotion of the “human side” of History, as something tangible that was experienced by real people.
The department needs to be aware that our target is for ALL students to make progress in learning History. Teachers will need to know where each student in the class is up to. How they know that and how they demonstrate that is completely up to them (within the realms of any whole school tracking system). As a department, we will ask teachers to not consider the success or failure of individual students in exam conditions as a prerequisite for judging teacher quality (mainly due to the research that tells us this isn’t a valid way - DAVID DIDAU/JACK MARWOOD on how to judge teacher quality > “It’s a good question. My initial response was to say, look at the data: if a teacher’s exam results are good then whatever the teacher is doing must also be good. This is beguilingly simplistic and I’ve come to understand that this is only slightly preferable as a proxy than lesson grades. You see, exam results are achieved by children. We see correlation and are fooled into believing it is causation”) We will ask them to consider the departmental mission statement as a self-evaluation tool. The underachievement of certain students will be addressed at a whole school and faculty level. In History, we will ensure that we know who is/isn’t achieving in the History classroom. We won’t expect any particular intervention from individual classroom teachers and we certainly won’t expect to see any record of particular interventions on paper. We will simply ask teachers to do their job and try and do their job well.
“We want to challenge all our students to think about History, on a journey through our knowledge rich and academically rigorous curriculum, whilst supporting students of all abilities to achieve their goals.”
The department will design and implement a balanced curriculum. There are two lines on curriculum development – 1. “The curriculum in History is progression (MICHAEL FORDHAM)”2. “The curriculum in History supports progression as students develop a range of historical skills through their learning.” Our History curriculum will look to achieve a happy balance between these two aims through 1. Ensuring that curriculum content challenges students to know more than what is contained in a specification, to explore and “dig deeper” and to actually think about the content in complex ways. 2. Give plentiful opportunities for students to develop their sense of chronology, use and analysis of historical interpretations, ability to analyse differing historical sources and ability to articulate their thoughts and ideas about History.
The curriculum will need to be constantly updated to ensure teachers have a stake in what is and isn’t covered. Some very important and clever people have spent a long time considering what a curriculum should and shouldn’t contain. We won’t spend too much time dismantling the History curriculum. We will however always look for opportunities to add to or develop the curriculum to inspire students. We will do this by – 1. Considering local history in curriculum design 2. Considering the interests of our students in curriculum design and in particular topic weightings.
The curriculum will be developed with “memory in mind” (ALEX QUIGLEY).This will mean an emphasis on regular low stakes “quizzing” in built into schemes of work, it will mean the re-visiting of key topics at intervals and it will mean the use of a range of high quality feedback strategies with verbal feedback given high value.
At Key Stage 3, the emphasis will be on depth not breadth. The department will ask teachers to follow a long-term plan but give complete flexibility over time allocation. Its vital teachers in the department feel as though they can meander on a tangent if that tangent will lead to deeper thought and/or learning. Teachers will be trusted to go where they feel they need to, as long as they hit a few minimal curriculum checkpoints.
“As teachers, we are serious about developing our own teaching so will experiment with innovative and cutting-edge pedagogy, testing it not only against student outcomes but the educational research available to us.”
Teachers in the department will be encouraged to experiment. Using the “try, refine, ditch” model (AMJAD ALI), teachers will be actively encouraged to “think outside the box” for new ways to engage more students in learning. Failure of a given idea will be seen as a positive step towards finding something that works; the more teachers try new things, the better. This is active research.
A proportion of the departmental development budget will be spent on purchasing (2nd hand if necessary) some of the most relevant publications for teachers. A CPD library will be available for all teachers in the department.
Of course, all this is far from exhaustive. I could have probably added so many more "needs" than I have. But you have to stop somewhere right? The next step will be to locate and list the various tools you would use to achieve those goals; specific websites, resources or ideas that will support achieving each goal. Personally, for History, I may use some of the following for inspiration;